I can reflect back over thirty years sitting in this office, staring out across the parking lot at the traffic whizzing up and down Columbus Avenue, each car coming from someplace and going someplace else. There was never anything personal or special or memorable about the occupants of those cars, and I’m sure if any one of them happened to glance over at my office, he would have found nothing particularly personal, special or memorable about its occupant either. Had one’s eyes locked on mine at that precise moment he passed and if I just happened to lock my eyes on his at that same fragment-in-time—well that might have had all the potential of being a Hollywood moment!
But, over a quarter century that never happened.
Looking back, each year, and for that matter, each day of every year was pretty much like all the other days and years.
Across Columbus Avenue there used to be a two acre parcel of vacant tumbleweed-clogged land, endowed with its own special charm and populated with kit-foxes (which are an endangered species, and are a fineable and/or jail-able offence to even accidentally kill), and ground-squirrels, that anyone can kill and often does. At the far end of the parcel are groves of dense, nameless trees. Behind them is a stream, a tributary really, of the mighty Killer Kern River, so named because of the number of people who lose their life to it every summer, and where, up-river, at its most violently churning part, a sign is posted that reads: Stay Out/Stay Alive But, alas! They don’t. And, they don’t.
In the interest of accuracy let me explain that from my chair you can’t actually see the tributary to the Mighty Killer Kern behind the groves of trees. But, I know it’s there, just as I know it’s part of its mama, the Mighty Killer Kern, and, where, up-river there is a sign Stay Out/Stay Alive. I know all that is there, even though I can’t see it from here—and I thought you might like to know it’s there, too—both what’s visible and what’s not.
Also, in the interest of further accuracy, I’ll add that from my chair—and, for that matter—from any chair from any office on this side of Columbus Avenue you can’t see the groves of trees, anymore, except what is allowed to peek from between the second and third of the four apartment buildings, and looking suspiciously like a clump of spinach wedged between teeth.
It all happened about seven months ago. An enterprising Bakersfield soul, after the mayor cut a ribbon with a humungous pair of scissors, turned his men loose on the field to remove rocks and tumbleweeds, to relocate the kit-foxes and gas the holes of the ground squirrels. Afterwards, they planted a brand new crop of apartment seeds in three neat rows of four and over the months I watched them grow until they were fully ripe and ready to open up and harvest cash for the owner.
Please don’t think I am angry and protesting progress. I’m just a writer who is trying to find a balance between clinging to the truth of his life while creating fresh and interesting ways to keep his readers awake and moving left-to right across the page. In the course of doing this, I’d like to say I told the truth as I perceived it—although one piece of mistruth I’m blushing about is that the contractor’s men gassed the ground-squirrels. I don’t know how they got rid of them, only that they were there in masses before. I haven’t seen one in the last month.
You may wonder what difference any of this makes anyway: the cars, the fields, the trees, the hidden streams, and the Killer Kern, progress, the apartments and the mystery of the missing ground squirrels. In the grand theme of life what is any of this but disjointed and uneventful subplot?
Subplot … I wonder myself. Thirty years. All subplot!
This—all you patient readers—is what I’ve been leading up to:
In three days I shall—while exhibiting as much drama as I can muster—turn off the lights for the last time. Bill Cosby did it when his tenure ended. Mary Tyler Moore did it at the end of hers. Twenty-million people watched on TV as the room faded to black.
But, I shall be alone, flipping the switch. And, it’s springtime here in California. There will be no fade to black, or even gray. The room will look the same with the switch down as up.
But, perhaps that’s as it should be. No high drama. Just subplot.
So, June 1st I shall be retiring from Allstate Insurance Company (By the way, the gentleman in the picture is not me. We look much alike, but I do not yet need a cane.)
I was a middle aged man of 43 when I hired on. Allstate did much of what she promised.
She provided me with an office that was toasty in the winter and cool in the summer, a sign above the door with Allstate and Jay Squires on it, an internationally recognizable brand, scads of advertising on the national and local level … and a telephone. I waited for it to ring. It rarely did.
During my thirty years of waiting for the ringing, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems and short stories, the absolute finest of the latter compiled in a collection of short stories under the dubious title THE GREATEST short STORY [-ies] [I’ve ] EVER TOLD (think yellow, he subliminally whispers). I also wrote a Noah Winter mystery novel, entitled RSVP: An Invitation to an Alchuklesh Massacre.
After thirty years, I know I’m not leaving Mother Allstate a legacy. Neither has she left one for me. We part merely as strangers—occupants of cars and offices. And, in a way, I suppose that is sad.
But, Saturday I begin a new subplot. If I have my way, over the years allotted for me, I shall make it a grand subplot on the way to uniting—or reuniting—with its even grander theme.